I just want to preface this by saying that everything written here is wrong. This came from an English relabelling exercise, where the task was to strip an artistic piece of its context and utterly reinterpret it.
Noel Melbourne's The Armoured Soldier
Lachlan Marnoch, 2017
The Armoured Soldier, from esteemed Australian artist Noel Melbourne, depicts a man clad in black armour aiming a gun at a bush forest. This painting is about a human’s struggle to retain his identity against the incursion of the natural world - against a kind of ecological entropy. And he is losing.
The very notion of attempting to fight a forest with a gun is inherently ridiculous; a futile effort. His eyes are visible through the slot in his helmet - wide open, terrified.
The trees all have trunks of either black or grey, suggesting a recent bushfire. Humanity - in Australia, at least - spends a great deal of time and effort resisting bushfires. Yet the fires continue; with anthropogenic climate change continuing, they grow only more severe. So this becomes symbolic of humanity’s powerlessness, and loss of control, in the face of nature’s complexity.
But there is a yet deeper meaning. The trees are not dead husks. They are alive, regrowing in lush green over the black. Presumably they are eucalypts, for which fire is a necessary component of their life cycle. Fire here is not only an enemy of humanity, but an ally of nature. And the friend of my enemy is my enemy. Against a foe that is only made stronger by natural disaster, how can a rifle be of any help?
This speaks of cycles: death and rebirth, burning and regrowth; and man, in Melbourne’s world, is just another cycle, born from nature and eventually to return to it.
We resist, like the soldier. But resistance is futile. Through the slot in the soldier’s helmet, we don’t see the rest of his head. Instead, we catch a glimpse past his eyes, as though through a window, of the forest beyond. And now we understand the soldier’s terror: for despite his weapon, his superior technology, nature has already reached inside him, and is subsuming him. He is losing that which humanity has fought so hard for since its birth - to elevate ourselves from the natural world, to become separate, other. Apart from his armour, the soldier and his gun are painted in natural colours - green, blue, tan. The man is depicted in an unreal style, and his fingers appear almost like spiders’ legs as he struggles to fire; these become further symbols of his absorption, his transformation into the natural world.
The armour itself is a symbol of a human’s habit of thinking of itself as separate from nature - somehow special. The way it is painted, solid black against the more detailed natural landscape, serves this purpose. However, this piece says that we are wrong. Even with his armour, a divider meant to protect him from nature’s encroachments, nature still eats him away.
The message of The Armoured Soldier is that, although humans might think we have conquered nature, and have indeed altered it to a staggering degree, we do not control it. Soon, we’re going to regret ever having tried. Melbourne also suggests that humans will not maintain our dominant position forever, and will be dragged kicking and screaming back to a primitive state.
The idea that man’s rise from and return to chaos is an inevitable cycle is, I posit, a pessimistic one. I suggest that, instead, humanity will eventually find a balance with nature, find a way to live alongside it without trying to grapple it into submission. But, perhaps, I am wrong and Melbourne is right. Only time will tell.